Cabernet Sauvignon: A Primer

Posted on Jun 16, 2021


Bordeaux France

Cabernet Sauvignon bud break in Bordeaux.

Cabernet Sauvignon is in many ways the world’s most important grape when it comes to making red wine. It is the world’s most planted grape variety (just edging out Merlot for that title) and it makes some of the most highly praised wines as indicated by both critic’s reviews and prices collectors are willing to pay. More than just a noble grapes variety, it might just be the King of red wine grapes.

bordeaux france

The vineyards at Pichon Baron in Bordeaux.

Not withstanding its regal status, Cabernet Sauvignon has a relatively recent history. The grape was in fact created in the 17th century as a “natural cross” of the Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc varieties. (Grape varieties are cross-bred in the lab frequently and it’s how South Africa’s Pinotage came into being. A natural cross is the same thing, but occurring in nature, without the scientist’s helping hand). This cross is believed to have first occurred in Southwest France, likely in what has now become the Bordeaux appellation.

Wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon are often referred to as simply “Cabernet” but we always use its full name as Cabernet Franc, the other Cabernet, is very much a legitimate grape in its own right and distinguishing between the two we believe to be important.

walla walla washington

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in Washington [photo credit: Great Northwest Wine]

Cabernet Sauvignon is a dark-coloured grape with thick skins. Those thick skins need plenty of heat to fully ripen and develop before the end of the growing season and so Cabernet Sauvignon is usually planted in warm or hot growing regions. Cabernet also likes soils that allow for good drainage; this keeps the berries small providing the deep and concentrated flavours that are part of Cabernet Sauvignon’s signature. Loose, gravelly soils often work well for this purpose as do hillsides. Fortunately, these types of conditions occur in many regions, allowing for Cabernet Sauvignon’s significant plantings (341,000 ha worldwide).

Chile wine

A glass of Cabernet at Altair winery in Chile.

Cabernet Sauvignon is vinified both as a varietal (a wine made from a single grape variety) and as a part of a blend. When drinking a Cabernet Sauvignon expect to find a darkly coloured wine with deep concentrations of flavours coming mostly from the black fruit end of the spectrum: black currant, black cherry and blackberry. Complexity comes from secondary notes that often include cedar, leather, smoke and sometimes bell peppers or mint.

Cabernet Sauvignon produces wines with full body that pair wonderfully with grilled meats. You will likely note, especially with a young Cabernet Sauvignon, a pronounced drying sensation on your palate, a result of the grape’s high levels of tannin. This tannin, especially in a wine’s youth, can come across as aggressive or coarse making the wine seem rough and unpolished. However, those tannins give the wine longevity and can allow Cabernet Sauvignon to drink well for decades when made in the right hands from top vineyards. With time in a cool cellar those tannins will better integrate with the rest of the wine and will smoothen out and become much less harsh. That time will also allow the other flavours to fully develop and create a highly complex wine that wine-lovers adore.

Cabernet Sauvignon grows well in many regions, but the reference point against which all others are judged is its home of Bordeaux.

The well draining soil in Bordeaux.

While Cabernet Sauvignon can be grown successfully in many parts of Bordeaux, it reaches its magical peak on the left bank of the Gironde River in the 5 great communes of the Medoc: St. Estephe; St. Julian; Paulliac; Margaux and Graves. These appellations offer gravelly soils that provide good drainage and relatively poor nutrients. This lack of nutrients, conversely, is actually a good thing. Forcing the vine to struggle to grow naturally enhances concentration and flavour development through lower crop yields and a less vigorous leaf canopy.

Bordeaux France

Chateau Mouton Rothschild.

Bordeaux has traditionally been a warm climate providing only just enough heat units in most seasons to fully ripen the Cabernet Sauvignon. Climate change may be changing that as growing seasons there and elsewhere seem to be getting hotter. As a marginal growing climate, the Bordelais have planted Merlot and Cabernet Franc, both of which need less heat to fully ripen, to blend with their Cabernet Sauvignon to hedge their bets against cooler seasons. While cooler seasons are less of a problem the “Bordeaux Blend” of the regions 5 classic varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot) remains popular as blending brings forth added complexity and some feel a more balanced wine.

The 1951 Mouton Rothschild.

The five First Growths of Bordeaux are some of the most praised and collectible wines on the planet, selling for over $1,000 per 750 ml bottle for current releases and multiples of that for certain back vintages. Four of these five wines are always Cabernet Sauvignon dominant, typically having 70% to 80% of their blend of this variety. They are Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Chateau Latour and Chateau Margaux. The fifth First Growth, Chateau Haut Brion, usually has about 50% Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend.

Bordeaux’s main challenger in growing excellent Cabernet Sauvignon would be California’s Napa Valley. Napa grows delicious Cabernet Sauvignon but with a slightly different signature than Bordeaux. This is mainly attributable to Napa’s hotter climate that tends to produce riper wines with higher alcohol. Expect to find Napa Cabernet Sauvignon showing 13.5% to 15% ABV compared to most Bordeaux coming in between 12.5 % and 14% contributing to generally more body from a Napa wine.

Napa Valley wine

The stunning view from Smith-Madrone atop Spring Mountain in Napa.

While we have given the nod to Bordeaux as the best Cabernet Sauvignon growing region, many would quibble with that, and for good reason. The famous blind tasting organized in 1976 by wine distributor Steven Spurrier pitted top Bordeaux reds against to Napa reds that were judged side by side by a panel of expert French judges in Paris. The winning red wine was Napa’s Stag’s Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon. Napa’s Chateau Montelena won the competition for the whites beating out some of Burgundy’s finest.

But Napa isn’t the only region in California that can produce great Cabernet Sauvignon.

Sonoma Valley wine

Bettina Sichel of Laurel Glen with Chris in their vineyards.

Sonoma County can do a great job with this grape and one of our personal favourite producers is Laurel Glen that makes several Cabernet Sauvignon based wines showing great purity and elegance. Paso Robles is home to Daou Winery whose Soul of a Lion is one of the best Cabernet Sauvignons in the US, in our view.

One of our favourite Cabernet Sauvignon growing regions is Washington State.

Washington Wine

Leonetti Winemaker Chris Figgins.

The State’s Walla Walla and Yakima Valley’s produce some excellent Cabernet Sauvignon that in our view can provide as much quality at their best as the tops from Bordeaux or Napa. Wineries Quilceda Creek, Leonetti, DeLille, Woodward Canyon, Betz Family and Andrew Will have produced Cabernet Sauvignon varietal and blended wines that are among our favourites and that have received massive praise from other wine critics as well. We find these Washington wines to fall somewhere between Napa and Bordeaux in style, which Bob Betz has referred to as “old world structure with new world fruit”.

Barossa Valley wine

Some of the estate vines at Elderton.

The southern hemisphere also produces some great Cabernet Sauvignon. Australia’s Elderton, d’Arenberg and Rockford all produce excellent Cabernet Sauvignon. From Chile the Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon from Concha Y Toro is a reference point wine that will age gracefully for decades. Altair produces beautifully elegant Cabernet Sauvignon based blends. In Argentina, Cheval des Andes makes a Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec blend from their high altitude meticulously looked after vineyards that will give a run to its more famous cousin in France, Cheval Blanc.

While we have talked about the best from each region in this article, there are plenty of value wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon from each of these regions. Washington State and Chile both have an abundance of very good Cabernet Sauvignon at very fair prices coming from some of their larger producers such as Chateau Ste. Michelle and Concha Y Toro that are readily available in many markets.

2 Comments

  1. Robin@42aspens.com'

    I think I originally avoided Cabernet Sauvignon because I associated it with Bordeaux and Napa, both regions where the wine had become very expensive. As I have found additional regions around the globe I have gained a respect (and a taste) for this wine.
    This is a great primer! So much great information!

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    • Cab was my first love and I typically associated with those regions but discovering other regions has only made us love it more. Some really terrific value ones still out there!

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